In today's blog post, I discuss impeachment, what it means, how it's done and how it can affect your case. Impeachment certainly isn't sweet for the witness who is being impeached, but it may be sweet for the other party and his or her attorney. It is normally a very effective tool to discredit a witness and every attorney and every client should know something about how it's done.
Impeachment is defined as the process of discrediting a witness. Credibility, as many people know and understand, is one of the most important factors in a trial and assessing it is one of the most important things that a jury does during the course of and at the conclusion of a trial. An attack on a witness' credibility may be done either directly through an attack on the witness' perception, memory or bias or it can be done through the use of prior inconsistent statements, a reputation for untruthfulness, the exposure of prior bad acts and through evidence of prior criminal convictions. Impeachment is almost always done on cross-examination.
Facts outside of the context of the case that is before a Court may be introduced into evidence to impeach credibility on issues like bias, interest, sensory impairment and the like. The more beneficial facts that we attorneys try to find are facts that not only have a bearing on these issues but also are relevant to the facts of the case before the Court. One example that comes to mind is if a witness was involved in a motor vehicle accident, claims that the other driver ran a red light and the witness making this claim was drunk at the time of the accident where he claims that the other vehicle ran the red light. I am sure that almost anyone reading this blog could understand why the witness being drunk would have an affect on his credibility and also on the facts of the case.
One of the most fun method's of impeachment for us attorneys is impeachment through the use of prior inconsistent statements. One colleague of mind has said, frequently, that it is the most fun you will ever have with clothing on. As a general rule, a prior inconsistent statement may be in any form, oral, written, sworn or unsworn. Prior conduct that is inconsistent with the witness statement during trial may also be introduced to impeach the witness as well. If the witness is a criminal defendant who has chosen to testify, the prior inconsistent statement may also be a statement that was taken in violation of his or her Miranda rights as well. The Court of Appeals in New York has taken a broad view of the meaning of an inconsistent statement when it is used for impeachment purposes. It is enough that the prior inconsistent statement or act tends to prove differing facts. In the case of any doubt, a Court should err on the side of admissibility and permit a jury to make a determination on the evidence that is present to it during the course of a trial.
An omission in a prior account of the facts to which a witness has testified is also considered an inconsistent statement if the circumstances make it almost unnatural for the witness to have omitted the fact. The use of an omission is another very enjoyable experience for any attorney at the time of trial and I hope any attorney reading this has the opportunity to experience this. How it works is that a witness gives an account of an incident during a pre-trial deposition and lets say it was a car accident. During the deposition the witness does not testify that the light for your client's vehicle was red and your client's vehicle proceeding through an intersection. Then at trial, the witness testifies that your client proceeded through an intersection against a red light. I would pull out the transcript of the witness' deposition testimony and refer them to the page and line where they testified about the incident previously and ask them to point out where they mentioned the red light at that time. Then you get to sit back and watch the witness squire, turn red and begin to sweat. You wait until the ring in the room from your questions and answers has stopped and then you point out that the claim that your client ran a red light was not something to which the witness had testified to previously. If you can't have fun with this situation, they trust me you are in the wrong line of work.
With all of this in mind, I would just like to remind our readers that our blog topics are not comprehensive discussions of each issue. We would be writing a set of encyclopedias if that were the case. So if you have any questions about these issues or you need some assistance with a topic that we have touched on in our blog topics, please feel free to reach out to me or any of the other attorneys in our office and let us know. We are all happy to give people feed back and we always try to make ourselves available for questions. Thanks for taking time to read this blog and I wish you well in all you do.